Writing: Mentalism, the I Ching, and You
Anybody here ever thrown the I Ching?
I know, I know. You’re looking at me now like I’m crazy. I am. But that’s purely coincidental.
When I was younger, I read Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi classic The Man in the High Castle, and I was pretty well captivated by the idea of the I Ching. So I bought myself a copy, fished a few quarters out from between the couch cushions, and gave it a go.
The Oracle gives pretty good advice, open to interpretation, open to the winds. And it’s almost eerie how well any little piece of advice (hexagrams, they’re called) will fit the situation you need help with.
It seems almost like magic. It seems almost like prescience.
Of course, it isn’t.
The way the I Ching works–and what makes it such a powerful source of good advice–is something falling into the realm a magician would call mentalism. Basically, it’s the ability to make a general statement that will resonate with a very high percentage of readers or viewers–will resonate enough, in fact, to seem like telepathy.
Which means, to put it briefly, that the I Ching gives good tidbits of general advice, dressed in a healthy soupcon of mysticism. It then leaves the interpretation of this advice–even with commentary–up to you. It’s advice that can apply to any good yes or no question–things such as ‘will my relationship succeed?’ or ‘should I publish my first novel now, or in a few months?’–and, lemme tell you, it’s probably better general advice than the sort you’ll get from your friends, whose opinions are influenced by the fact that they like you, and want you to succeed.
I can do it too. See? See? Lemme tell you something about yourself.
You’re not as brave as you would like to be, but when the cards are down, you do what you need to do to make things work.
The magic is, this is true of almost every single person on Earth. No one’s as brave as they want to be, but in the end, we all like to think we step up to the plate when we have to. So I can say it. I can say it, specifically to you. And you feel like it’s true. I can even mold it to make a semi-specific prediction:
A source of new money will come your way soon. What it comes down to, in the end, is if you’re brave enough to take the opportunity. Don’t falter, and don’t hold back–your commitments won’t be hurt by a little time spent elsewhere. Take the chance, and you’ll be prosperous.
This is nothing-advice, built on dreams and air, yet it contains a few grains of truth. A source of new money probably will come your way ‘soon’. We have opportunities to earn money all the time and, with this advice in mind, you’ll probably be more on the lookout than you were before. Whether or not you’re brave enough to go for it–isn’t this what everything comes down to, in the end? And as to your commitments–well, that’s a bit of a guess, but it’s a sound one. You probably have a few. And, as any way of earning money usually takes some time and attention, it’s a fair guess it’ll take your attention away from the nebulous Elsewhere for a while.
So I gave you good general advice. And when it happens–and there’s a very high probability it will–you’ll think I’m a fucking genius.
Why am I talking about all this, you wonder? You’re probably not consulting this blog for my mind-reading powers. Or, um. If you are, you’ve got another thought coming to you, because I don’t have any.
But there’s a good lesson for your writing here. You know that old adage, write what you know? I’ve talked about it a little before, here in this post OMG linky linky.
Writing what you know is the art of empathy and connection, especially in fantasy. You might not have ever been cursed by Azoktarian the Mighty, but you’ve had an enemy, and you know the powerless anger and finger-curling tooth-gritting subservience of being helpless against somebody. Because you know those things, you can tell the story of being cursed. Because you’ve missed dinner, you can tell the story of famine-stricken farmers in Glarglian Province, and the hunger that maddens them and presses them to rise up, sharpen their pitchforks, and kill the grain-hoarding Duke.
Apply these mentalist principles, in tandem with the idea of writing what you know, to your story, and you’ll have yourself some old school emotional resonance.
In short: don’t make your main conflict whether or not Frodo gets the ring to Mount Doom. Make it whether a hobbit, a homey little creature who likes his couch and his comforts almost as much as the person reading the book, can triumph against insurmountable odds based on faith, trust, and friendship.
Because people don’t know shit about hobbits. They don’t know shit about magical rings, Uruk-Hai, or the difference between the sons of Feanor and Fingolfin (sorry, I am a blue-bleeding genuine geek). But they know what it’s like to be a regular person facing insurmountable odds. They know what determination is, and they know what it’s like to stick to a task. They might not know what it’s like to be a King in hiding, cast into the wild north, but they know what it’s like to run from responsibility, and the pride that comes with taking up a rightful burden.
Your fantasy story, at its heart, is a very real story, about very real people, with very real problems. Everything else–the fantasy elements, the cool settings, the magic systems–is just set dressing, and is therefore secondary.
You think I’m insane right now, saying the fantasy part of a fantasy is set dressing.
I am. But again: purely coincidental.
What matters first isn’t your genre. It isn’t your world. It’s your story. It’s having a good story, with a conflict that can resonate with a large group of people.
Look at Star Wars. Yes, we all love TIE fighters and jawas and the cantina scene, we all love Jabba the Hutt and Leia in a metal bikini and, um, some of us love Ewoks (don’t judge me). But most of us first saw Star Wars as kids or adolescents, and we resonated with Luke’s whiny ass. Because here was a kid finding himself. Here was a kid finding his place. Here was a kid fighting evil–going against his father–for something he believed was right.
His place in the world just happened to be a lot cooler than ours, and his ‘right’ happened to involve lightsabers. Again: why we read spec fic. And why those set dressings DO matter.
So, when you’re thinking about the conflict and plot of your story, ask yourself these questions:
1) Can I take the main plot of this story out of a fantasy setting, and make it work?
2) Can I sum it up in a few sentences, in a way that would apply to a large group of people here?
3) How am I working to make this character’s arc resonate with my audience?
Because emotional resonance is that simple. Mind you, I’m not saying you shouldn’t give your character specific traits, or your world specific traits. Of course you should. But the conflict that moves the story along should, deep down, be something everyone can understand. And, while I’m not a big believer in symbolism and/or allegory, this one-or-two-line conflict should be very carefully defined by you, for yourself, as you write.
Because it’s the spine of your story. It’s the thing keeping it upright and mobile. And it’s the one thing–the one damn thing–you need to keep in mind every time a character farts or walks a few paces. And you should always–always–make decisions for that character based on how you know someone in that situation would feel.
If you do this, you’ll have all sorts of feely feels in your story.
Mm. Feely feels.
I’m going to go feel doing some work now.